Kevin Stallings’ brief, two-year tenure as the head coach of the Pitt men’s basketball team came to a screeching halt on Thursday when it was announced he would not return.
Stallings’ short time here was a bit of an oddity with most coaches lasting beyond two seasons. But in the end, the head coach couldn’t survive a number of lowlights along the way.
The introduction of the new head coach was one of those, even if it wasn’t Stallings’ fault. Stallings was met with derision by the fanbase and, along with then athletics director Scott Barnes, endured some unusually tough questioning in his initial press conference. The hire was not a popular one and, regardless of the fact that Stallings did nothing wrong at that point, his tenure here got off on the wrong foot.
That was somewhat rectified shortly after that. Some pointed to his track record in recruiting at Vanderbilt and things sort of died down a little. Players even spoke out about his willingness to ‘let them play’ without fear of making mistakes in a shackled offense. Stallings earned some points there as it was hoped the offense could improve with fewer restrictions.
That, um, didn’t last.
The signs were apparent early on that Pitt might not be very good, despite returning four starters. The team nearly lost its opener, needing overtime to defeat Eastern Michigan. In December, they would lose to a ten-win Duquesne team and defeat Buffalo by only five points. They would give up more than 100 points to Marshall in a crazy 112-106 game. There was hope that the team could turn things around in ACC play but that was laughable. Pitt would start the conference season 1-9 and finish the season under .500.
That year could be a major reason Stallings was not retained. It proved that, even with some talent that included two lower level NBA-quality players, Stallings might not be able to propel the team to success. His bench was weak but finishing under .500 with that many returning starters still wasn’t a positive sign.
One of the things Stallings became famous for in his first season were his public comments about his players.
In a word, the relationship between Stallings and his veteran players seemed strained. Stallings made it clear, even publicly, that he expected more from his group. And that thought carried over into this season when he repeatedly stated how happy he was with his current roster.
Whether Stallings was right to expect more from his players was really inconsequential. The important thing was how it played out in the media and with the fanbase. His comments were seen, unfairly or not, as throwing players under the bus and that wasn’t a good look. It wouldn’t have been a good look if the team was winning and the fact that they were terrible on the court made it even worse.
Stallings’ next hits came as a result of that season. Shortly after the season ended, Stallings was hit with the news that he was losing his best returning player, Cam Johnson, who wanted out. That would up not only being bad for Pitt but it turned into a PR nightmare as the Panthers were lambasted for not allowing him to transfer in conference to North Carolina without sitting out a year first. They ultimately relented and, as I wrote at the time, it was foolish that Pitt was being criticized for a policy that many other schools have enforced. But it still was big news and, by association, was a black mark against Stallings by the national media.
He would then have little time to catch his breath. Stallings’ top recruit, point guard Aaron Thompson, had plenty of offers but chose Pitt in 2016. Even though he had later signed a letter of commitment with the program, Thompson wanted out, too, and was granted his release. That left Pitt with two likely starters in 2017-18 suddenly gone.
The 2017-18 Losses
I’m not going to recap the awfulness that was this year’s basketball team again. I just did that in a separate article. But it was baddddd.
One thing that will always stand out for me is just how bad the losses became. Most fans came into this season knowing the team wouldn’t be very good and I’d argue that many were even willing to accept that. But it wasn’t understood that the team would lose every single conference game and not even make most of them close.
The huge losses became regular occurrences. Nearly 40% of their defeats (nine out of 24) were by more than 20 points. 66% were by double digits. Pitt not only routinely lost, but lost badly.
And none of that even touches on the Virginia game where Pitt scored an unbelievable seven first half points in the home finale.
As if the season wasn’t going badly enough, during a game against Louisville, Stallings made an apparent comment to hecklers in the crowd about not having to pay $100,000 for its players. That was a shot against the Cardinals who reportedly paid $100,000 to a recruit and was loud enough that media covering the game reported it.
Stallings didn’t deny it, only saying he was sticking up for his players. As I wrote at the time, that was somewhat admirable but done in the completely wrong manner. Getting into shouting battles with fans is rarely going to work out for you and when you’re paid millions of dollars to be a representative of the university, it just looks kind of ridiculous. Maybe if, I don’t know, a tennis coach makes a comment like that and it doesn’t really draw any coverage, it’s a minor offense. But since it was picked up by the national media, it was just another stain on his resume.
A successful coach typically wouldn’t get dismissed alone for something like this. But we’re talking about a coach that just went winless in the conference, was never a popular hire, and was a part of several unflattering national stories. It couldn’t have helped him.
Attendance is something that’s been discussed to death here so I’m not going to beat the dead horse. But it surely was something that helped lead to his dismissal. Pitt drew record lows and had a fanbase that wasn’t enthusiastic about following the team this season. As I wrote yesterday, that not only looked bad but cost the program a lot of revenue.
Overall, it was simply too much to survive. If Pitt keeps Johnson and Thompson, things would have been better. If the team played better last year and reached the NCAAs, that would have helped. Perhaps if the fan base showed up more this season and wasn’t so down the hire, that would have helped, too. But when you add all of these things together, it looks more and more like a situation that can’t be fixed without wiping the slate clean.